Saturday, October 22, 2016

QCinema 2016: Baboy Halas, Purgatoryo, Best Partee Ever, Shorts B

Baboy Halas has a few fantastic scenes, with one particular scene indelible in my mind: the frame completely dark with occasional sparks. Within it, our hunter character negotiates with fire itself; and as the flame illuminates the rest of the frame, we see the hunter, dimly lit, subservient to the fire both visually and scene-wise.

Baboy Halas has a lot of these moments, but they are buried deep in ponderous, languid scenes. The movie seems to be aiming to transport you into its milieu, but at times the scenes stretch into tedium. It's a convention that may prove trying for some viewers (myself included.) But for those that choose to brave the storm, these moments are magic,  given to use through a very unique cinematic experience.

I've also noticed that while I am immersed into this culture, I don't remember hearing the name of any tribe, or where the tribe comes from (somewhere in Mindanao? Lumad?) - I wish I could remember these facts, so that I can learn more about their cultural identity. Maybe I just wasn't paying attention. 

Baboy Halas is quite a challenge to watch. Within its depths, the film bears mesmerizing fruits. But such fruits come only to those that walk the journey to the end, and viewers' mileages may vary.

Purgatoryo is one of the most polished films in this year's fest. Derick Cabrido and his team manages to craft an interesting world steeped in amorality and nihilism for the sake of the bottom line: money.

That said, most of the film feels like an exercise in how outrageous and edgy some scenes can get. Many characters have no qualms in doing the dirty in morgues or engaging in random necrophilia (the necrophilia scene, by the way, is among the film's most technically accomplished.) By the end, things were getting so out of hand I was waiting for the eventual dead underage baby brother incest sex scene. Thankfully, the film knows its limits.

As for the plot, reading the film's synopsis (if you can find it) is basically 90% of the movie. Given the film's world, this development is quite disappointing. The basic plot reminds me a bit of Paul Sta. Ana's Oros (2012) which operated on a very similar premise. The film's main source of entertainment stems from your immersion into its world, more than its plot.

It's a shame, since the film boasts some really interesting characters. Of note is On-On (Kristoffer King) who acts as the moral center of the entire movie, despite his outward appearance. I think it's one of his best performances to date. Bernardo Bernardo also delivers as one of the film's slimiest characters, Violet, whose only value for human life depends on what money the body (living or dead) can make her.

Purgatoryo oozes with technical skill and style. Its world is an interesting one, and one worth watching at least out of curiosity. But it leaves little else to the palate.

We end this year's full length coverage with HF Yambao's Best. Partee. Ever., which chronicles the journey of millennial Mikey (JC De Vera in an unforgettable role) as he goes through the prison system for selling party drugs.

His prison journey, backed by rich relatives and some influence over the courts, sits in stark contrast to some of the other prisoners, who have none of these advantages. The film does do its part to chronicle the state of prisons here in the Philippines, whose isolated social system is tiered and separated into classes, a microcosm reflecting society on the outside.

And much of the film is timely as well, as it deals with drug related crimes. Mikey might not have survived had he been arrested during this administration. For all we know, he might not have been arrested in the first place.

Relatively privileged or not, his journey through prison, a coming-of-age if you will, still changes him profoundly. He learns both love and loss during his prison time; he picks up a bit of responsibility as he heads his local group of gay inmates, ultimately fighting for their rights, and he tries to navigate through prison life in his own unique way. Unfortunately, many of these plot threads are abandoned as Mikey nears the end of his journey, but the movie's more about the journey than the destination, a storytelling decision that may not fare well with everybody.

The film ends conclusively, though it can be interpreted in different ways - either as a shift towards good, an abandonment of childish ways, or a reminiscence of violent scars that will never heal.


QCinema Shorts B Short Shorts Reviews

Padating is about a young woman and her father waiting for someone at the airport. Then it just ends. Although there are some hints from the dialogue and Ellora Espano's subtle facial expressions (my favorite theory is that the father is waiting for a favorite(r) child, or his wife/new wife) we don't really know who they're waiting for, or why. The end product is a bit under-cooked for my taste.

Papa's Shadow is a small, charming film about a young girl coming to terms with the death of her father, who dabbled in shadow play. It has a lot of cute moments that work in this regard. Anyone who has lost a loved one at an early age can probably identify.

and finally, Hondo ranges from silly to extremely dark (yet somehow still silly) near the end. I'm still trying to figure out what it wanted to say, but the fun's in the details, I guess. I'm also not convinced with the urticaria - I've experienced it to be more itchy than painful.

that ends my QCinema coverage for this year. The festival has really improved by leaps and bounds over the past few years. Here's to more great films next year. Next up, the second to the last major festival of the year, Cinema One Originals. See you all at the movies.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

QCinema 2016: Hinulid, Women of the Weeping River

There's a certain kind of lyricality in the interconnected scenes of Kristian Cordero's Hinulid; with its non-linear, almost abstract narrative, the work feels more like a poem than a film. Collectively, its themes limn a cinematic pieta, a mother searching her memories for the meaning behind her son's seemingly meaningless death. These memories are interspersed with religious iconography, treatises on law, justice, and flashbacks. The film ends up loosely constructed as a result.

Nora Aunor's star shines among her fellow actors, giving us a spectrum of emotions, at times impenetrable, at times vulnerable. It's always a treat to see her in action, although without an equally formidable foil her co-actors pale in comparison.

While the film's poetry holds for most of the running time, the work starts to crumble under its own weight during the last half hour, as it tries to tackle too many things. During this period we see several scenes where the film could have ended perfectly, but didn't. The end result proves exhausting as the film tries to include as much as it can into an already full package.

Despite that, the film's poetry cannot be denied, and certain scenes prove mesmerizing. Parts of Hinulid can be quite challenging, but the rewards may be worth it in the end.

On the other hand, Sheron Dayoc's Women of the Weeping River seems to approach its subject matter in a relatively low-key manner. But even then, the richness of how it frames its images reveals the depths of its tragedy.

I was surprised to find out that like Dayoc's Halaw (2010) this film was also about the Tausug, though the problems that afflict the Tausug are also problems faced by many of the peoples of Mindanao. Women of the Weeping River takes place during an intergenerational family conflict that has recently claimed the husband of our protagonist, Satra. This clan or tribal warfare regularly claims the men of both families involved, with each death leading towards a desire for further retribution, sealing the circle of violence. Soon, much like in Teng Mangansakan's recent Daughters of the Three Tailed Banner (2016), this vortex of death creates a family of widows and children without fathers. And as Satra's wounds grow even deeper, she comes to realize that further violence helps absolutely no one.

Breaking this circle. on the other hand, proves harder than expected, as the notion of ubusan ng lahi has become normalized in a sense, as many of Satra's relatives believe that justice can only be achieved purely through retribution. They trade parts of themselves (figuratively, at least) for weapons, forging alliances with people who depend on the culture of violence to prosper. Women of the Weeping River's milieu is filled with death, funerals and processions (both Christian and Muslim), and rivers that weep blood.

And looking at the larger picture, the conflict in this region of Mindanao is only the end branch of a much larger, complex entity, whose roots are these deeply entrenched systems of violence. It frames the role of women - wives, mothers, daughters - and their role in this conflict and in conflicts to come. It's encapsulated in one of the last scenes, when two of these women - widows both - meet each other in the forest, taken perhaps with the same notion of peace.

While incredibly melancholic at times, during this scene Women of the Weeping River gives us a tinge of hope, that perhaps within the right context, we can begin to understand why this violence exists rather than merely acknowledging that it exists. And there can be no peace without understanding.

Monday, October 17, 2016

QCinema2016: Patay na si Hesus, Shorts A

This QCinema entry takes the road movie format, which pops up from time to time in local cinema (ToFarm's Pauwi Na being a recent example) and gives it its own unique comedic flavor.

The titular Hesus isn't the religious icon, he's actually a normal guy. Upon learning of his death, his ex-wife Iyay (Jacklyn Jose) decides to take her three children from Cebu to Dumaguete to pay their respects to him. Iyay's family is anything but run of the mill, and the movie takes its time going through each of the characters and delving into their respective hopes and dreams. The road movie is made for this sort of thing, and the excellent ensemble cast helps in this regard, giving life to their respective quirky characters.

The film is pretty funny from start to finish. The jokes range from silly and inconsequential to screwball to outrageous. The family meets a number of weird situations and characters that challenge their status quo, including a criminal on the run, a borderline insane nun and so on. When the film does become somber, its near the end of the film, and it's just for one scene. Sure, the film can be faulted for being too comedic, but I think that's just the personality of the film shining through. It didn't lessen my overall enjoyment of the film.

The film makes that one somber scene count, though, and it encapsulates the thesis of the film, that life is generally a crapshoot, and sometimes all we can really do is laugh it off. Iyay's life hasn't been easy, raising three kids on her own. But in that scene, she's still okay with it. In the end, when life seems set to kick your ass, things generally work themselves out in the end. Given recent troubled times, I think this is something we need right now.

This mixing of laughter and tears - basically, life - can also be seen during one of the other comedic scenes near the end. It's a moment that should be tragic (and the characters are bawling their hearts out) but the audience was laughing. It's a strange juxtaposition that really hooked me. Though a bit rough around the edges in some parts, Patay na si Hesus is a funny, charming film that entertained me from beginning to end.


Time for some shorts. Overall I thought this slate was decent, with the individual shorts ranging from ok to great.

Sayaw sa Butal had a few cute moments, but I felt it really didn't go anywhere. Those drone shots though.
I really liked Contestant #4, because I've met people like our main character, who sacrificed their own needs for the needs of the family. Though the start was a bit slow, it really paid off with some lovely, poignant moments near the end.

Viva Viva Escolta is a love letter to Escolta, once the jewel of the city, now teeming with abandoned buildings and ghosts of the past. The story revolving the film's two main characters feels secondary to the location itself, lovingly lensed by Albert Banzon. In the end, however, that seems to be the point; their story serving as metaphor to old, fading memories.

There's a scene during If You Leave where one of the characters muses about horror tropes descending into cliche. It's a bit self reflective, as the film uses a lot of the same conventions as its sister film Violator: creepy places shot on old video formats, strange other dimensions, a mix of the mundane and the supernatural, even a few jump scares for extra measure. But the film is far from cliche, and I think it's actually the best film of this lot. The mere character of its strangeness makes for an unbelievably creepy experience.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

QCinema 2016: Ang Manananggal sa Unit 23B

Writer/Director duo Prime Cruz and Jen Chaunsu return to QCinema with a new film, Ang Manananggal sa Unit 23B, which puts the millennial romantic movie through a horror-filled twist. The result is a clever spin on the romantic genre, one of this year's most gorgeous looking movies, and a pretty decent film in and of itself.

Jewel is our titular manananggal (for you non-Filipinos reading, its a vampire-like flesh eating monster that splits into two), and the film starts out showing us her rather mundane life. It sets the mood perfectly for everything that happens next. She comes across a young tenant who moves in nearby with his grandmother. Soon the two build up an uncertain relationship.

Most of the film revolves around the question of whether this unlikely couple will hook up in the end or not, and how Jewel's secret will be revealed, if at all. The buildup of the relationship stems from a number of candid conversations similar in tone to last year's Sleepless (made by the same crew). These conversations will not work if the leads don't have chemistry, and Ryza Cenon and Martin Del Rosario thankfully deliver. Ryza Cenon in particular is a delight to watch - she manages to create a complex character who is not an evil monster as previous depictions of the manananggal show; instead, she's an entity who is forced to do heinous acts by her very nature, and she knows she cannot stop it. Nevertheless, Jewel comes off as someone still capable of love, yet suffering from loneliness because of that very nature - a supernatural hedgehog's dilemma, so to say.

The movie is gorgeously shot, and props have to be given to the production design team and the cinematography team - this is simply one of the most beautifully shot movies (local or otherwise) of the year. Each shot is framed just right, and meticulously so, but not so much as to call attention to itself. I remember the shot of the two characters in the laundromat as a particular example - the frame looks gorgeous, and in two separate instances, the shot reflects the leads' relationship to one another.

The film does make a side statement about the spate of extrajudicial killings that have been happening recently - in that it's so easy for a murder completely unrelated to drugs (in this case, caused by a flesh eating creature) to occur and have it automatically attributed to drugs anyway because the cardboard sign said so. In fact (and perhaps ironically) the only drug related activity seemingly goes unpunished.

The film is not perfect - I felt that the ending was a bit rushed and didn't let us linger in specific moments. I felt that the romance could have been developed further. But the best scene in the entire movie (for me, anyway) happens during this ending scene, excellently acted by Cenon and Del Rosario: a long, lingering look, just a few seconds longer than usual, that communicates to me everything that needs to be said without speaking a single word. And that to me, my friends, is everything.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

QCinema 2016: The Handmaiden (Opening Film)

It's time for QCinema, one of the country's rising independent film fests. Last year's lineup was quite remarkable and this year looks like it won't disappoint. But before we go into the meat of things, let's start with the festival's opening film, Park Chan-wook's The Handmaiden - the first Park movie that I saw in theaters. And for the record, that was one hell of a movie.

The Handmaiden loosely adapts Sarah Waters' novel Fingersmith and changes the location to Japanese-occupied Korea. A wily pickpocket is recruited to spy on a wealthy Japanese heiress, part of an elaborate scam. However, things aren't as simple as they seem at first.

The film is divided into three sections, each revealing another hidden layer of the story. The movie and the novel diverge at the third act, but the overall product does not disappoint. The story is pretty straightforward, however, and is probably one of Park's simpler works storywise.

The film fills up to the brim with sexual tension. Park has explored sex and desire before, notably in his previous Thirst (2009), which mixes lust with survival instinct, and Stoker (2013), juxtaposing lust with perverse violence. These previous films form a trilogy of sorts with this film, where the sex is tied into twisted love, a culmination of the themes explored in his previous works. This tension explodes into a number of sex scenes that may prove controversial for some.

And given these themes of desire and love, it's intriguing that Park chose this particular period of time as the setting for his film. Korea and Japan have had an acrimonious history, with one nation subjugating the other, inflicting serious wounds that have yet to fully heal. And yet here are a couple of characters, representing both countries, in a twisted, yet strangely loving, relationship. 

There's a bit of a nationalistic streak within the movie as well, themes embodied by Park's first big film JSA (2000). Within the confines of this movie, the culture and history of oppression that wartime Japan has established, represented by the collection of erotica and artwork that the character Kouzuki has collected, is rejected, destroyed by the female leads in a thrilling scene where the 'knowledge' of the world is revealed to them and they are shown the limitless possibilities of freedom.

I give credit to Park for trying to depict female sexual liberation, though it's still through the viewpoint of a man. The female characters are merely discovering themselves and their own potential sexual freedoms with each other, while the male characters are either impotent, depraved, or both. 

Frequent contributor Ryu Seong-hie gives the world of the Handmaiden richness and depth with her masterful production design, and Chung Chung-hoon, responsible for DP work on some of Park's most iconic films, takes up lensing duties. Jo Yeong-wook is responsible for the film's soundtrack, full of strings and rousing moments, elevating the film's emotional scenes.

This Handmaiden is in my opinion Park's best film post vengeance trilogy. It is masterfully realized and takes the themes explored in his oeuvre to greater, more twisted heights.

Sunday, October 02, 2016

Ang Babaeng Humayo

In an earlier post, I wrote how the female-driven revenge flick has been around for a while. While there's been an abundance of variations on this theme, Lav Diaz brings to the table his own interpretation of the tale with Ang Babaeng Humayo (The Woman Who Left,) which recently won the top prize at this year's Venice Film Festival.

Horacia (Charo Santos-Concio) is the titular woman, who has been released from prison after serving a thirty year sentence for a crime that she did not commit. She then plots her eventual revenge, meeting several people along the way, including a trans woman (John Lloyd Cruz) with self destructive tendencies. At the same time she grapples with the consequences of her incarceration, and the things she has lost in the intervening time.

While the plot is built on a Tolstoyan foundation (this time, it's God Sees the Truth, But Waits) the film sets itself apart from the story, and most other films of this revenge genre, by putting a very unique spin to the tale. It ruminates on the very idea of revenge and forgiveness, on how a dogged fixation on the past destroys people, and how revenge is reflexively self destructive. Diaz's Horacia-as-Aksionov walks a similar journey of accepting fate, while at the same time, unlike Aksionov, trapping herself in what ifs and lost possibilities. Multiple times she tries to be a mother to the people she meets, and to a taong grasa who sees demons. More often than not, she falters. Her connection with Cruz's character, Hollandia, is physical and spiritual at the same time. As Horacia takes on multiple identities as kindly Renata, who dons a more masculine appearance at night, Hollandia takes an identity along her feminine self identification. She sees in Hollandia a pattern of self destruction mirroring her own. But deep inside Horacia is the true Horacia, who has been undeniably changed after thirty years of imprisonment. She longs for a life she was denied.

While the plot is relatively streamlined (at a little more than 3 and a half hours, this is one of Diaz's shorter films) the film is rich with symbolism. The film lends itself to multiple layers of meaning. The casting of Charo Santos as the titular character searching for her identity is an inspired one, with her narration in some scenes evoking the public conscience of her stint as the host of the long running drama show Maalaala mo Kaya, of which this very movie could serve as an example of the show's many dramatic stories. As the former head of Star Cinema, which pretty much shaped the mainstream Filipino film through most of the 90's and 2000's, this film could be about the identity of Philippine cinema itself, and how it searches for that identity after the cultural upheaval of recent decades - with independent and mainstream melding into an indistinguishable shape, film being film with no labels.

And, as much as Ang Babaeng Humayo is a revenge film - it is also a film about postcolonialism. Its setting in 1997 marked one of the final transitions from a colonial, imperialist world into a postcolonial one - that of Hong Kong's turnover to mainland China. The movie alludes to kidnapping and incarceration, and it's hard not to see countries liberated from their colonial masters as prisoners who have served long sentences. Coming out of our own 300 year imprisonment from the Spaniards, we fought for our own independence, only to be occupied once again by the Americans, the Japanese, and in the case of Martial Law, our own selves. We emerge from this fugue state having lost so much of ourselves, mirroring Horacia's own plight, fixated on the past tense, but uncertain on how to form the future tense. And, in depicting the inequalities of life post-incarceration, we see its reflection in the film's depiction of the divide between first and third world.

The film makes a case for freedom, true liberation from our collective pasts, by focusing on what's ahead, by opening the door into an uncertain future. But as the film's final frames tell us, that may be harder than we think; we may still be trapped into an endless cycle looking for things past, for things lost, and in one character's words: what's lost may be gone forever.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Manuel Conde at 100: Genghis Khan (original 1950's version)

Manuel Conde is, in a manner of speaking, one of the pioneers of Filipino independent filmmaking. His films, made outside the influence of the studios of the day (Sampaguita, LVN, et. al.,) were imaginative, ahead of their time, and also socially conscious. Unfortunately, a lot of these films (and many films from the era) were lost to time due to inadequate systems for film presentation. The films that made it to the present day are mostly hailed as classics. To celebrate his body of work and legacy, the CCP, the Society of Filipino Archivists for Film (SOFIA) and the NCCA put together a short series of screenings of some of these films.

One of Conde's most well known films is Genghis Khan, released in 1950. It has the distinction of being the first Filipino film to be released in a foreign film festival. In this case, it was in Venice. The international cut of the film was  restored in recent years, but that version has English dialogue dubbed over it, and over 20 minutes was cut from the film. This screening was for the original Filipino version, and this is more or less how Filipino audiences would have viewed it in the fifties. It's recorded from an old VHS copy, and the sound is a bit spotty. Long story short, it's still a great film, and I can see why it's considered a classic.

Genghis Khan is a dramatization of the historical figure's life as he rises to power. Historical accuracy was not the aim of the film; at several times in the movie our titular hero, a Mongol, wears a Samurai kabuto as his headpiece. The movie frames him as a shrewd leader, possessing Filipino traits like utang na loob. Conde's Khan is vengeful but listens to reason, and in the end is probably not as rapey and pillagey as the real thing.

This is a film where I can't simply say that it's a product of its time. On the contrary, - its structure and themes are unique for its time period. It's a mix of comedy, drama and swashbuckling action that is uniquely Filipino. Superficially, one is tempted to compare the film to sprawling epics produced by the Hollywood studio system at the same time. One might make the mistaken judgement that this film is inferior compared to those behemoths, as the film was shot on the smallest of budgets. That judgement could not be farther from the truth. Instead, the end product is wildly entertaining, partly thanks to Conde's team of collaborators, many of them National Artists themselves. This original cut is far superior to the cut with the English voiceover - it's almost like watching a different film.

There was also a small discussion at the end of the screening, which included a short presentation on the impact of the film and comparisons to other adaptations of Genghis Khan's life, and a session with actor/director/comedian Jun Urbano, who is actually Manuel Conde's eldest son. The post screening programs were almost as entertaining as the film itself. The various clips of the other Genghis Khan adaptations includes a 40's Japanese film that could double as propaganda, a Bollywood song and dance interpretation of the material, and clips from a horrible Hollywood adaptation starring John Wayne, channeling his inner hammy Mongolian cowboy with every frame.

Today's screening was a whole lot of fun. Next week we go from Mongolia to Vietnam as the CCP screens Conde's 1956 film Krus na Kawayan.

The CCP Dream Theater will screen more films by Conde on October 1 and October 8. Admission is free.